Definition of the four elements

I didn’t want to derail this other thread, but I thought this might be a good starting point for to discuss the four elements:

This is how I understand the elements - as not just matter, but as perceptions, properties, etc. However, the texts I have seen this explained in details is in commentaries, such as that for the Satipatthana Sutta:

Just as if some cow-butcher or a cow-butcher’s apprentice, a man who works for his keep, having killed a cow and made it into parts, were sitting at a four-cross-road, just so, a bhikkhu reflects, by way of the modes, on the body, in any one of the four postures thus: “There are in this body the modes of extension, cohesion, caloricity, and oscillation.”
The Way of Mindfulness: The Satipatthana Sutta and Its Commentary

It’s not easy for me to deduce such meanings from the suttas themselves though there are clues in passages such as this one in MN140.

And what is the air element?
The air element may be interior or exterior.
And what is the interior air element?
Anything that’s air, airy, and appropriated that’s internal, pertaining to an individual. This includes
winds that go up or down, winds in the belly or the bowels, winds that flow through the limbs, in-breaths and out-breaths, or anything else that’s air, airy, and appropriated that’s internal, pertaining to an individual.

Presumably these meanings were common knowledge, so the suttas don’t explain them in detail?


The Chinese five ‘elements’ are in fact processes for example Putin is a Water Dragon, and 2024 is the year of the Wood Dragon. Water and Wood are in the five. Water is a nourishing process which gives rise to Wood, that’s easily seen. Wood is a growth process like a stem of bamboo. Next year then Putin will be overcome by Wood, which is a natural process. This is part of the ‘generating’ system; there is also a ‘destructive’ cycle, and these seem to parallel dhamma and impermanence in Buddhism.

Why stop at the four elements? Everything is Dhatu, even Nibbana is referred to as Nibbana Dhatu or Dhamma Dhatu. Lokadhatu covers the entire world. So Dhatu has several, subtle meanings and the basic elements of form should be understood in the this context.

There was a question on stack exchange not too long ago about this. I am also interested in why people claim that the four great elements refer to (qualities of) perceptions, because the texts I have seen in the canon seem to indicate it was just how they understood the material world at the time.

Good topic and I hope others can enlighten us with broader perspectives.

As you say, many people nowadays (in Western circles especially) describe the four elements as physical sensations or felt properties. For example, the feeling of solidity and hardness is said to be the ‘earth element,’ the feeling of heat ‘fire’ and so on. Others may go for a more matter-based perspective and relate them to e.g. phases of matter.

While both of these are helpful and not entirely off the mark, neither of them are correct in a wholistic sense.

I think one thing that’s helpful to bear in mind is that the four elements were understood to be deities or have some kind of personality projected onto them. For example, Fire can hide in the earth, consume buildings and forests when agitated, or carry offerings to the gods as oblations. Earth can shake and move, give life to plants (like its hair), etc.

So within our world — our experience — there are these ‘properties’ that make up what we experience and that we interact with. We get blown around by wind and we have subtle winds in the limbs and body blowing around; the world gets hot, fires burn, and our bodies get warm as well; the earth manifests plants, bricks, and matter just as our bodies have hair, organs, and bones; the rivers and sea flow on, sometimes flooding or falling in rain, just as we sweat, urinate, and have liquids flowing through the body. When these elements get disturbed or interact in various ways, nature changes — internally and externally.

The Buddha was living in a world with this kind of understanding and cultural background. But his main interest, of course, was understanding our experience of the world and our relationship to that experience. So he would be interested in questions such as: “How do we actually know this? What is the actual experience of these elements?”

Well, we know it via experience of course, and by deducing and understanding these properties and their fluctuation with our senses. So things are made of the elements, the elements have a general kind of agency or behavior within their particular category, and we experience them as they collide via impressions of ‘form’ in our senses. There’s a broader world view of fluctuating forces (which we experience daily and can contemplate as chaotic, impermanent, impersonal, etc.), and there’s also the workings of how we experience that via contact and feeling/perception.

The colliding or impact that gives rise to our experience is sometimes called patigha in the suttas. When our body comes into contact with wind (in the limbs or outside); when we feel shivers or pleasure; when we hear sounds or smell food. The elements are all colliding and interacting, pushing on one another, and consciousness (or awareness) is another element/property within our experience which presents this all to us. Moreover, it happens within and around space (which is derived from the positioning and separation of the various properties), and so that too can be said to be an element derived from form.

The ‘form’ (rūpa) is this experience; the patigha refers to the aspect of our contact where form is interacting. The elements are these forces that manifest, move, and relate to one another that we experience as form via resistance-contact.

In very subtle states of altered consciousness, we may still have contact and experience properties akin to the elements. Just as we see objects, we perceive light or colors. We may smell divine smells, or feel deep sensations of pleasure. This is on a different level than just an anatomical body, but it’s similar to the bodily level in so far as there is a kind of contact and sense of delimited experience with properties. When this all breaks down, as Ven. Sunyo mentioned, there is just infinite / unbounded spaciousness within itself. There we can’t really get a sense of individual contact or being within an experience of the impression of properties/elements; rather, we just are this vast, unfathomable openness. Or something like that.

Hope this is helpful. This is how I tend to relate to the elements.

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I read them as being the material “stuff” out of which physical things are made. It’s an ancient theory of the physical world, which has now been surpassed by modern science. The idea that they are qualities, forces or phenomena comes later with the Abhidharmas. The water element for example is anything that is watery, such as saliva which makes up our body. In truth of course, there is no such thing as an earth element or a water element.

I find this to be a very interesting viewpoint, it looks consistent and analytical enough to be useful, and it potentially helps us to better appreciate the mindset during the Buddha’s era. It also just adds “flavor,” which is nice.

But what sources found within the canon, or other ancient historical scriptures/works, support this viewpoint?

That question may be asking for far too much. To demonstrate that the viewpoint you have articulated is canonically derived seems like a large undertaking. My intention here is not to suggest that you are speaking incorrectly, but rather to convey that I just have not seen this viewpoint expressed in my (limited) readings.

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Yes, that’s what I’d like to know. Where can we learn how were they understood at the time?

Please note I am not posting this to depress anyone

If someone says, what begins by staring at a coloured circle on a wall can be developed all the way to arupa samapattis not many people will have confidence in that.

And it would be the same if someone says, what begins by for example feeling the heat in the hands can be developed in a extremely profound direction.

Look in to ‘Catu dhatu vavatthana’

This statement sounds unsubstantiated. The five elements are literally defined in MN 62, MN 140, AN 9.15 & elsewhere.

One should not forget that the elements are all Sankhara/Dhamma and are therefore “Mano” made.

And @mikenz66

Well, if you’d like to know how the elements were understood as divine forces or beings, you can just look at the name for them in Pāli: called four mahābhūta or ‘great beings.’ Then look at that in Vedic sources such as the Samhitas, Brahmanas and Upanisads. There the elements are active forces operating in the world and out of which the world is made by dividing it up and whatnot. The term for fire was ‘Agni,’ a principal god/force; water was sometimes called Varuna (a god), and so forth.

I’ve found one example from an early Upaniṣad, the Aitareiya, with a footnote by Olivelle (an expert in this field):

“Who is this self (atman)?”—that is how we venerate. … It is brahman; it is Indra; it is Prajapati; it is all the gods. It is these five immense beings [mahābhūtāni]—earth, wind, space, the waters, and the lights; it is these beings, as well as those that are some sort of mixture of trivial beings, living beings of various sorts—those born from eggs, from wombs, from sweat, and from sprouts. It is horses, cattle, men, and elephants. It is everything that has life—those that move, those that fly, and those that are stationary.
[Note:] immense beings [mahabhutani]: this term has the technical meaning of primary ele-
ments (earth, water, fire, air, and ether) in later philosophies, but here, I think, they refer to the five large and expansive beings, as opposed to the small individual entities

Here, notice how ‘these beings’ (the elements) are put next to other beings that are living and born in various ways. So there is an implied relationship between the great beings — the primary elements of the world — and smaller trivial, individual beings. Olivelle mentions this in his note some.

Of course, there is also the more mundane material sense of the elements, but that is related and intertwined with their divine connotations. We read in the EBTs (see MN 28, etc.) that an element can be ‘kuppati’ — agitated / disturbed. This verb is used for sentient emotions like anger or being annoyed, and is used for the elements when there are floods, large fires, changes in wind, etc.

Even when criticized a little bit she loses her temper, becoming annoyed, hostile, and hard-hearted, and displaying annoyance, hate, and bitterness.
Appampi vuttā samānā abhisajjati kuppati byāpajjati patitthīyati, kopañca dosañca appaccayañca pātukaroti.

Notice the synonyms with kuppati, and then how it is used with the elements:

There comes a time when the exterior water element flares up.
Hoti kho so, āvuso, samayo yaṁ bāhirā āpodhātu pakuppati.

So we aren’t supposed to believe that water is a sentient being, but there is a kind of personification there which says something of how they imagined and thought of the elements: they are a kind of all-encompassing material force that shifts and moves. The water in the sea and the water in our body is all made of the same water element/property, and these have particular behaviors they display.

We can, however, notice the distinction between dhātu and mahābhūta. The term mahābhūta is used only for the four (earth, water, fire, wind) in the suttas, whereas dhātu is used for five or six (space + consciousness). This is, like others and I have said, because the ākāsa property of our experience was understood to be derived and conditioned based on the other four great elements in the world. So we could say that those four were understood to be more primary and fundamental to the natural world, whereas space just kind of derived out of their relationship and separation. In other philosophical systems, ākāsa was thought to be primary.

So the term dhātu is used for earth/water/fire/wind/space/consciousness, but also the sense bases and consciousnesses (SN 14.1), as well as the aggregates (SN 22.3) and other miscellaneous usages like planes of existence, types of groups, and so forth (e.g. MN 115, SN 14, etc.). This is because the term dhātu just means any element of experience or a larger whole; a kind of property within the range of some category. So the property/element of earth within the material world; the element of the eye, sights, and eye-consciousness within the visual sphere; the element of volition or feeling within the aggregates. This word has less “baggage” than does mahābhūta, which is used specifically for four things.

We can see the term dhātu used in relation to a tree trunk as well at AN 6.41. There, a tree trunk is said to contain the earth, water, fire and wind elements. However, the sutta also says it contains the element of beauty and non-beauty (subha/asubha). So again, the word dhātu here is not the same as the mahābhūtāni, but is obviously related somehow. It seems that the sutta is indicating that a tree trunk has these various properties or elements to it, and strong meditators can pick up on one of those and amplify it with their mind to alter the trunk. So again, beauty/ugliness are subjective properties or qualities of an experience. Here, we get the picture that the dhātu are both ‘material’ in one sense, but also related to our subjective experience of them in another.

There is an article on the term dhātu in Early Buddhism here, by Gabriel Ellis. The author also briefly discusses the use of mahābhūta in contrast, and notes that the four Great Beings/Elements seem to be used in more objective, material contexts (as beings/forces in the world), whereas dhātu has a more subjective incline to it. These are shades of meaning and cultural context rather than strict philosophical statements, but they help contribute to our understanding.


Dhp 1 does not say all things are mano made. Dhp 1 is only about intention & kamma and says intention & kamma are mano made. :slightly_smiling_face:

For myself the following sutta is pretty clear, that at least, something more than a theory of matter is meant.

Sāvatthiyaṃ viharati…pe… ‘‘yo, bhikkhave, pathavīdhātuyā uppādo ṭhiti abhinibbatti pātubhāvo, dukkhasseso uppādo rogānaṃ ṭhiti jarāmaraṇassa pātubhāvo.

Yo āpodhātuyā…pe… yo tejodhātuyā…

yo vāyodhātuyā uppādo ṭhiti abhinibbatti pātubhāvo, dukkhasseso uppādo rogānaṃ ṭhiti jarāmaraṇassa pātubhāvo

See also SN22.39

Yo, bhikkhave, rūpassa uppādo ṭhiti abhinibbatti pātubhāvo , dukkhasseso uppādo rogānaṃ ṭhiti jarāmaraṇassa pātubhāvo.

Yo vedanāya…pe…
yo saññāya…pe…
yo saṅkhārānaṃ…pe…

yo viññāṇassa uppādo ṭhiti abhinibbatti pātubhāvo, dukkhasseso uppādo rogānaṃ ṭhiti jarāmaraṇassa pātubhāvo

And just for good measure SN35.21

Yo , bhikkhave, cakkhussa uppādo ṭhiti abhinibbatti pātubhāvo, dukkhasseso uppādo, rogānaṃ ṭhiti, jarāmaraṇassa pātubhāvo.

Yo sotassa…pe…
yo ghānassa…
yo jivhāya…
yo kāyassa…

yo manassa uppādo ṭhiti abhinibbatti pātubhāvo, dukkhasseso uppādo, rogānaṃ ṭhiti, jarāmaraṇassa pātubhāvo.

I read the Favour of Liberation vol 1&2 by burgs, a student of pa auk recently.

I only properly learned about the subtle bodies from him. Subtle body includes kamma and mind produced body, which is of the 4 elements. temperature and nutrition produced 4 elements are what is able to be tested scientifically, butt the mind and kamma produced 4 elements are to be noticed by the meditator who meditates on the qualities of the 4 elements in their body.

eg. mind produced materiality is there everytime the mind appears and it’s normally a light. So far, I don’t think science properly investigates how humans perceive our own body internally .

Burgs says that the chinese qi is the life faculty, which is 4 elements, produced by kamma. And the Indian Cakhras are the mind produced 4 elements in the body, where the awareness appears in the body. Those who learn qi gong or tai chi can maybe feel the qi flowing.

This is straight out of the Abhidhamma.